[Film Review] Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

Black Coal, Thin Ice poster

English Title: Black Coal, Thin Ice
Original Title: Bai ri yan huo 白日焰火
Year: 2014
Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Director/Writer:  Diao Yi’nan 刁亦男
Music: Wen Zi 文子
Cinematography: Dong Jinsong 董劲松
Liao Fan 廖凡
Kwei Lun-mei 桂纶镁
Wang Xuebing 王学兵
Wang Jingchun 王景春
Yu Ailei 余皑磊
Ni Jingyang 倪景阳
Rating: 7.3/10

Black Coal, Thin Ice 2014

This 2014 Golden Berlin Bear winner (with a rare second Silver Berlin Bear award of BEST ACTOR for Fan Liao) is Chinese director Yi’nan Diao’s third feature, and his first to be shown in cinemas and harvested over one hundred million RMB, roughly equivalent to 16 million dollars, thanks to the international accolades it received. Its original title can be translated verbatim as “White Day Fireworks”, it is the name of a nightclub which would be revealed as a crucial thread to a murder case, furthermore Diao arranges a literal daytime firework show to climax the film in the coda, meanwhile, its official english title: Black Coal, Thin Ice, betrays the locations which relation all the murder cases during a five-year span.

The film starts in 1999, in an unspecified city in China’s North-east province Heilongjiang, Zhang (Liao) is a recently-divorced policeman, during a fresh case of a dismembered body scattered in sundry collieries where an I.D. card indicates the dead is Liang (Xuebing Wang), but due to his negligence, two fellow policemen are killed in operation while Zhang is also wounded. After that, the time jumps to 2004, now Zhang is a life-beaten drunkard and works as a security guard, two new dismembered bodies have been found, all link back to Liang’s wife Wu (Gwei), whose mysterious mien attracts Zhang, he embarks on a personal investigation to follow her, strike up a conversation with her in the dry-cleaner where she works, and eventually ask her out for an ice-skating date. But at the same time, danger is lurking around him too, is Liang really dead? Or is Wu as innocent as she looks? Can all the mysteries be brought into daylight in the end or is there another lie involved? Diao smugly leaves an semi-opening end with many spurious clues (e.g. the cremains Wu buried under the tree Vs. her apparent lie of discarding it over the sea during the enquiry), to prompt viewers for disparate interpretations.

This film is to a great extent inscribed as an art-house fare with its lurid background or foreground colour embedding in almost every scene, the visual palette is meticulously chosen and also overtly, Diao is a faithful apprentice of symbolism, from a battered ladybug on the bedsheets in the opening sequence, to an abrupt introduction of a deserted horse left by junkmen, until the firework finale reaches the hallmarks of its veiled fatalism pretentiousness buried in his not-so-justifiable script, there must be a more plausible reason behind a redemption by right of admitting a murder one might not execute, it unfortunately gives an impression of a desperate trick to glaze over the banality of the story, to romanticise the damsel-in-distress reverie.

The whole story is a dancing-on-the-edge between a sex-driven anti-hero and a irresolute femme fatale, with a jarring red herring which leads to nowhere. But the two leads are giving fantastic performances, Fan Liao breathes out the irascible mentality stinkingly inflicted on a non-starter who clings to the last straw and strives to feel the ardor of living again. While Lun Mei Gwei from Taiwan, may seem to be an odd choice for a North-east girl, heedfully, she doesn’t have many lines to give away her southern accent, instead, relies on her body language and facial expressions, her air of mystique is the most enticing feature entraps audience even in the film’s banalest moment.

Winning over the likes of BOYHOOD (2014) and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) in Berlin inevitably becomes an overachievement for this intense crime-thriller, but put it among its Chinese peers of the same year, the film can excel most of them hands down, as one of the must-see from the over-ballooning market where ingrainedly burdened with shoddy soil damages its own commodities.

Oscar 2014 - Black Coal, Thin Ice


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